Ofcom has revealed the light at the end of the mobile broadband tunnel, with speedy 4G services -- and better reception for everyone -- set to roll out in 2013 after it finally auctions off the spectrum at the end of this year.
The telecoms regulator reckons Vodafone, O2 and T-Mobile/Orange will all bid for chunks of sky, but it has reserved a slice for a fourth operator, whether it's Three or someone else.
Two clumps of spectrum will be up for grabs, at 800MHz and 2.6GHz. The demise of analogue TV has freed up 800MHz and it's deemed particularly useful for extending coverage to rural areas. One of the operators who bid on part of the 800MHz spectrum will have to commit to providing mobile Internet coverage for 98 per cent of the country, with reception strong enough to use indoors, by 2017.
"This combination of low and high frequency spectrum creates the potential for 4G mobile broadband services to be widely available across the UK," Ofcom promises, "while offering capacity to cope with significant demand in urban centres."
When it says 4G, it technically means LTE, the Long-Term Evolution of 3G. The stuffy body that certifies use of the term 4G says we'll need to be able to stream an IMAX movie in 2 seconds to be 'really 4G', so thankfully everyone is ignoring that. In the US, 4G phones are often marketed as the 'something something LTE' but they might be called 'something something 4G' here.
LTE can offer a theoretical maximum of 100Mbps, but in all likelihood it'll be more in the 8Mbps range -- still nothing to sniff at when you're stuck on a sweltering bus and desperate to listen to the cricket over iPlayer.
More of our clouds and rainbows (that's where the spectrum lives) than ever before are being given over to mobile data and calls, with the two new bands adding up to "250MHz of additional mobile spectrum, compared to 333MHz in use today," Ofcom brags.
As yet, no date has been announced for the auction. "There was a general expectation that there would be a date for the
auction this morning," analyst Eddie Murphy told the BBC. "But it's
probably very important from Ofcom's point of view to get it right."
There's been all sorts of legal spitting and hissing from the UK's networks over this process. Orange and T-Mobile (which are part of one company, Everything Everywhere, since their merger in 2010) planned to convert some of their 2G spectrum to 4G use by the end of 2012. The other networks screamed 'no fair!' and went crying to
Mum Ofcom, which hasn't yet made a decision.
"Everything Everywhere is committed to bringing 4G to the UK this year," a company spokesperson told me in a statement, "and the next milestone will be the regulator's response to our request to roll out 4G over our existing 1,800MHz spectrum without further delay."
The networks have dragged their feet on 4G, not wanting to get caught out like they did in 2000, when they massively overpaid for the 3G spectrum. I would be surprised if the 4G auction raised a fraction of the £22 billion spent last time, but we'll see at the end of the year.
"Given the insatiable appetite for data from consumers in the UK," says Ovum analyst Matthew Howett, "we can be quite certain that it will be a hotly contested auction with all players keen to ensure they get adequate spectrum to support further growth in demand."
Looking forward to 4G? Or are you more excited about finally getting decent reception where you live? Accelerate into the comments, or beam your signal to our crystal-clear Facebook page.
Update 2pm: Added comment from Everything Everywhere.